Traditional Japanese Buddhist Cuisine (Shōjin Ryōri) served at Tenryū Temple, Kyoto. Image Source: 663Highland via Wikimedia Commons.

Traditional Japanese Buddhist Cuisine (Shojin Ryori): A Starter’s Guide

An overview of Japan’s Buddhist devotional dishes plus 10 tourist-friendly restaurant recommendations — ideal for vegetarians and vegans!


Many yoga practitioners are vegetarians for various reasons, with a significant number committed to the vegan lifestyle. This is often an issue when traveling, especially when visiting a country where your language isn’t spoken.

In recent years, Japan has become increasingly easy to navigate for vegetarians and vegans thanks to apps such as Google Maps, HappyCow, and Uber Eats, along with a growing number of specialist cafes and restaurants. This is particularly the case in Tokyo.

However, traditional plant-based cuisine has a long history in Japan and is indeed one of the country's many cultural treasures. Below, I’ll give you an overview along with ten tourist-friendly restaurant recommendations. This is by no means a comprehensive guide, but my hope is that it serves you well as a tasty starter (sorry, had to get that pun in there…).

About Shojin Ryori

What is it?

The best-known example of traditional vegetarian and vegan dining in Japan is Buddhist devotional cuisine, known in Japanese as Shōjin Ryōri (精進料理).

Perfected by monks as part of their spiritual practice, Shojin originally meant enthusiasm in advancing among the way of enlightenment or seeking after a perspective free of common musings and connection. By consuming a diet free of animal flesh, devotees are abstaining from violence against living beings.

  • Sho (精) means “to focus.”
  • Jin (進) means “to go forward” or “to advance along the way.”
  • Shojin (精進) implies a procedure of constant reflection.
  • Ryori (料理) is the word for cooking or cuisine.

Shojin Ryori is not only eaten by devout Buddhists. It is regarded as a cultural experience by locals and visitors alike. It’s hard not to admire the artistry of the food’s presentation, enjoy its subtle tastes and textures, and appreciate the health benefits that accompany eating food made from quality produce.

Shōjin Ryōri served at a temple in Nagano Prefecture. Image Source: Chris 73 via Wikimedia Commons.

History

Shojin Ryori came across to Japan along with Buddhism, which is said to have been officially introduced around 552 CE by monks from Korea according to the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan). Buddhism has been tremendously influential in Japanese culture. Over the centuries it has diversified into several schools, and today there are over 70,000 temples nationwide.

Shojin Ryori was introduced to Japan by monks from China and Korea in ancient Japan. Manpuku Temple, Kyoto, received the practices from Chinese monks and is regarded as one of several pivotal places in the history of Japan’s adoption of Shojin Ryori. Image Source: FG2 via Wikimedia Commons.

Principles

Shojin Ryori is vegetarian (and often vegan) in accordance with the cardinal Buddhist virtue of ahimsa (compassion), which is interpreted to extend beyond human relations to all living beings.

It typically uses local, organic, and seasonal ingredients. Although some temples may allow taking advantage of modern logistics and add items sourced from elsewhere.

In most Buddhist traditions, the number five holds great significance. For Shojin Ryori, this means that you will likely be presented with five or more dishes orchestrated perfectly with various tastes and textures to appeal to our five faculties.

Although the practices and interpretations may differ according to sect, Shojin Ryori generally seeks to balance the following aspects of each meal.

The Five Elements Theory (in English and Chinese). Image Source: Parnassus via Wikipedia Commons.
  • The Five Colors: White, green, yellow, dark (black), and red.
  • The Five Flavors: Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory.
  • The Five Preparation Methods: Raw, stewed, boiled, roasted, and steamed.
  • The Five Elements: Different fruits, legumes, and vegetables are said to contain different energies, according to the Five Elements Theory (godai in Japanese, wuxing in Chinese).

Ok, now that we know what Shojin Ryori is, let’s take a look at ten examples of restaurants that serve it in Japan.

If you’re a detail-oriented person, feel free to indulge my preamble. Or, if you just want the info, go ahead and scroll down to the first listing below.

10 Places to Experience Shojin Ryori in Japan

About this List

First of all, a few words about how I came up with this list:

An example Shojin Ryori listing on the HappyCow app.
  • Number: I’ve limited the list to ten places — so this is by no means a comprehensive directory. Rather, it’s just to get you started and give you some ideas.
  • HappyCow: There are many restaurants offering Shojin Ryori throughout Japan. However, most have a limited online presence (if any) and often no information available in English. Therefore, in the interests of making a list that was user-friendly to modern tourists, I’ve limited it to establishments which have a listing in the HappyCow directory, which is available via their website or mobile app (App Store, Google Play).
  • Order: This list is not intended to be any kind of ranking or “best of” collection. The order is roughly from North to South.
  • Type: To give you a good idea of the range of places that offer Shojin Ryori, I haven’t limited the list to just restaurants which are part of temple compounds, which is where you traditionally find it served. I’ve also added a few establishments that offer a modern interpretation of Shojin Ryori.
  • Prices: Any prices quoted are ex-tax and subject to change.
  • Disclaimer: I’ve done my best, but obviously cannot guarantee the information is or will remain up-to-date…

Tips

  • Communication: Many of these establishments serve non-vegetarian fare, which is a modern Japanese interpretation of the theme to cater to market demands. They all have vegetarian and vegan options; however, these may not be clearly marked on the menu (and the menu may not be available in English) so it will help to have a Japanese speaker call ahead of time. Another useful tool are these printable cards for communicating dietary restrictions.
  • Last Orders: In Japan kitchens often stop serving 30–60 minutes before closing time.
  • Reservations: Some places may require bookings, especially for dinnertime or their more expensive courses. Others can get busy at peak times and not having a reservation can put you at a significant disadvantage. The restaurants in temple complexes often have customers sitting on the floor and may require advanced notice if chairs are preferred. Check these details ahead of time and plan accordingly.

Ok, now that’s out of the way, without further ado, let’s check out various kinds of tourist-friendly places serving Shojin Ryori in Japan!


1. Bell Cafe (Nikko, Tochigi)

This first establishment offers a casual and homey take on the Shojin Ryori concept, aimed at budget travelers.

Bell Restaurant & Cafe, Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture. Image Source: Nikko Kekko.

Bell Restaurant & Cafe (カフェレストラン ベル) is located in Nikko, a small city in Tochigi Prefecture, in the mountains north of Tokyo. The town is a popular sightseeing destination due to being home to the Toshogu, the large Shinto shrine established as a memorial for Tokugawa Ieyasu, founding ruler of the Edo Period.

The sign outside the Bell Cafe, Nikko, Tochigi. Image Source: HappyCow.

This small and casual cafe is:

  • Located in a residential area near the temples, but not directly affiliated with them.
  • One of the few places open late with vegetarian and vegan menu items.
  • This is a good choice for dinner if you are staying nearby as there will be no buses back if you decide to eat somewhere near the train station.
  • A good option for lunch if you are visiting the temples, though be forewarned that service may be slow if they get busy.

They have one Shojin Ryori offering on their menu called, the “Monk’s Meal.” It’s 1,650 yen and is centered around yuba (bean curd sheets), which is a Nikko specialty.

  • Boiled items: rolled yuba, local potato, carrot, shiitake mushroom
  • Yuba with sweet miso topping and koyadofu (freeze-dried tofu)
  • Yuba and vegetables with dressing
  • Tempura (seasonal — you’ll need to ask if you want vegan batter)
  • Yuba-flavored konnyaku (konjac) with fresh sashimi (vegan)
  • Miso soup with yuba
  • Yuba cooked in soy sauce with rice
  • Dessert (seasonal fruits)
The “Monk’s Meal” offered by the Bell Cafe, Nikko, Tochigi. Image Source: Cafe Bell.

Learn More: HappyCow | Google Maps | Website (in Japanese only)


2. Bon (Taito, Tokyo)

The next establishment is what most tourists and locals alike would picture when thinking of a traditional Shojin Ryori restaurant.

Bon, Taito, Tokyo. Image Source: Sophia Woods Institute.

Located in the Iriya district of Tokyo’s Taito Ward, the name of this restaurant, Bon (梵), means Buddhist believer. They specialize in Fucha Ryori (普茶料理), a distinctive tradition within Shojin Ryori that was introduced to Japan over 300 years ago.

A private room within Bon, Taito, Tokyo. Image Source: Kumi Suzuki.

The characters for Fucha (普茶) mean “drinking tea together with all people.” The word also refers to a meal eaten in Chinese style. Each dish is served from a large bowl. The meal begins and ends with tea, aiming to create friendship among those dining together.

The restaurant offers multi-course meals and boxed meals (bentos).

A bento-style meal at Bon, Taito, Tokyo. Image Source: Sophia Woods Institute.

Learn More: HappyCow | Google Maps | Official Website


3. Komaki Shokudo (Chiyoda, Tokyo)

This casual restaurant takes a modern approach to the Shojin Ryori concept.

The Chabara Complex, Akihabara, Tokyo. Image Source: Healthy Debu.

Komaki Shokudo (こまきしょくどう) is a vegan and macrobiotic restaurant located in the Akihabara district of Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward. The area is famous for its Otaku (nerd or fan) culture, manga/anime (Japanese comics/animation), and consumer electronics.

Opened in 2013, this restaurant is inside the 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan/Chabara complex, underneath the train tracks, next to the UDX building. Note that the shop is labeled as “Kamakura Fushikian;” confusing, I know. It’s actually their tagline. “Kamakura” (鎌倉) is the traditional area with a lot of temples south of Tokyo, and “Fushikian” (不識庵) is a Buddhist concept of not knowing.

It offers Shojin Ryori meals for 1,280 yen, which includes rice and miso soup refills. You get to choose four side dishes: pumpkin, fried jelly, cucumber, curry, or green beans. Extras include brown rice (200 yen) and drinks (400 yen).

Communal dining room, Komaki Syokudo, Akihabara, Tokyo. Image Source: Komaki Shokudo.

Rather than a sumptuous feast that you might find in the most esteemed Shojin Ryori establishments, this is more like the macrobiotic lunch plates which are found in trendy, health-oriented cafes across Japan. Some may be disappointed with this approach, but I feel it makes the cuisine more accessible to the younger generation who might otherwise feel intimidated going into a more traditional establishment.

A set meal with several options added, Komaki Syokudo, Akihabara, Tokyo. Image Source: Healthy Debu.

Komaki Shokudo also offers cooking lessons in English from time to time.

Learn More: HappyCow | Google Maps | Official Website


4. Kakusho (Takayama, Gifu)

Kakusho, Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture. Image Source: Tabelog.

Located in Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture, Kakusho (角正) is housed within an old traditional building, surrounded by a beautiful garden.

Traditional Japanese sweets served at Kakusho, Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture. Image Source: Gurunavi.

If you are a strict vegan and want to experience traditional multi-course meals of the highest quality, this exclusive restaurant is for you. Feast on a fantastic nine-course dinner with a variety of vegetable and tofu dishes.

It has been run by the same family for twelve generations. Private rooms are available, and there is also a communal dining room. Although most tables are on the floor, chairs are available upon request.

Note that this place is the real deal and so you can expect to pay over 10,000 yen per head for a full dinner course, but the reviews all seem to agree that it is well worth the price thanks to the excellent service and attention to detail.

Reservations are required for dinner and advised for lunch also. If you have any particular requirements, let them know along with your reservation.

A private room at Kakusho, Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture. Image Source: BbComeTrue Blog.

Learn More: HappyCow | Google Maps | Official Website


5. SinSinTei (Nagoya, Aichi)

The entrance of SinSinTei, Chikusa, Nagoya City, Aichi Prefecture. Image Source: Nagoya Vege Festival Blog.

SinSinTei (心々亭) is a restaurant and tea house (Saryo or 茶寮) that has become a favorite among vegans in Nagoya. It is located in Kakuouzan, a quiet and traditional district of Nagoya home to the Kakuouzan Nittai Temple.

Strong spices are avoided and fresh, seasonal ingredients are emphasized. This results in flavors that are often subtle, yet sensual. Their 1,300 yen dim sum course is popular. They also serve tea. The courses of 3,000 yen and over require a reservation.

A vegan spread, SinSinTei, Chikusa, Nagoya City, Aichi Prefecture. Image Source: Angel Pallete via Instagram.

There is an English menu although the staff does not speak much English. The cook and hostess (a mother and daughter team) are said to be kind and passionate about their work. If they are not too busy, they may even explain the history and therapeutic effects of each dish.

Communal dining room, SinSinTei, Chikusa, Nagoya City, Aichi Prefecture. Image Source: Tabelog.

Learn More: HappyCow | Google Maps | Official Website (in Japanese only)


6. Tenryu Temple (Arashiyama, Kyoto)

This is one of the most popular with tourists and locals alike.

Tenryu Temple, Arashiyama, Kyoto. Image Source: OsakaOsaka via Wikimedia Commons.

Tenryu Temple (天龍寺 or Tenryuji) has a Shojin Ryori restaurant called Shigetsu (篩月) located on the western outskirts of Kyoto in Arashiyama, about ten minutes walk from Arashiyama Station. The temple belongs to the Rinzai sect and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the ceiling of their Hatodou (Hatto) pavilion is the famous cloud dragon figure drawn by the Japanese painter Kaseyama, which seems to dance from the picture.

The restaurant is situated within the temple’s beautiful Sogen Garden for which there is a 500 yen entry fee. Some guests come for a leisurely lunch and spend time after wandering the gardens. The gardens are larger than you may realize and so it’s worth having the cashier at the entrance point out the restaurant’s location on the map.

The restaurant entrance has a noren (split curtain). If there is nobody at the reception, open the sliding front door and press the buzzer at the cashier’s window to call the staff.

The restaurant only serves during lunchtime, with three choices of vegan set meals; 3000, 5000, or 7000 yen. Most guests seem to take the 3,000 yen option and are entirely satisfied.

Guests usually sit in a communal room on a tatami or red-carpet floor while trays are brought with various red lacquer bowls containing foods such as sesame tofu, grilled miso-topped eggplant, yams, potato, miso soup, mushrooms, spinach, yuba, pickled winter radish (daikon), and tea. Wine and other drinks are available.

Communal dining room, Tenryu Temple, Arashiyama, Kyoto. Image Source: Tenryu Temple.

The serving is functional and no-nonsense, but the servers are said to be friendly, and some speak a little English. Low chairs and tables are available for customers who have trouble sitting on the floor.

Depending on how busy the restaurant is you may end up in a different room. The back room has no view. The best room overlooks a magnificent Zen garden complete with colored carp (koi) and floating lotuses. Since this is a popular destination for tourists, large groups may come for lunch, so either arrive early or make a reservation in advance.

A traditional Shojin Ryori meal set, Tenryu Temple, Arashiyama, Kyoto. Image Source: Tenryu Temple.

Learn More: HappyCow | Google Maps | Official Website


7. Obakusan Manpuku Temple (Uji, Kyoto)

Another of Kyoto’s cultural wonders.

One of the halls in the Obakusan Manpuku Temple complex, Uji City, Kyoto Prefecture. Image Source: Yanajin33 via Wikimedia Commons.

Obakusan Manpuku Temple (黄檗山萬福寺) is located in Uji City, Kyoto Prefecture. It’s less than five minutes on foot from JR Obaku Station (or Keihan Obaku Station).

Named after Wanfu Temple in Fujian, China, it has twenty-three halls and connecting cloisters dating to the mid-seventeenth century. Evident in its layout and design are heavy influences from China’s Ming dynasty. The temple was founded by Chinese Zen (Chán) master Ingen Ryūki (Yǐnyuán Lóngqí), and to this day has Chinese-derived customs such as vegan cuisine called Fucha-ryōri, which includes dishes such as mock salmon.

Traditional rock gardens, Obakusan Manpuku Temple, Uji City, Kyoto Prefecture. Image Source: Obakusan Manpuku Temple via Facebook.

Ingen is said to have introduced a variety of vegetables to Japan including green beans and watermelon. He also brought Chinese-style tea ceremony, Senchadō, to this temple and is credited with spreading the idea of drinking tea among ordinary people. Instead of the more labor intensive making of green tea powder, he promoting the simple brewing of dried green tea leaves in hot water.

The temple offers introductory Zazen (seated meditation) courses (reservation required), which are ideal to take before enjoying a Shojin Ryori lunch.

One of many beautiful vegan dishes available, Obakusan Manpuku Temple, Uji City, Kyoto Prefecture. Image Source: Aorenjar via Instagram.

Learn More: HappyCow | Google Maps | Official Website (in Japanese only)


8. Ukishima Garden (Nakagyo, Kyoto)

Ukishima Garden (浮島ガーデン) has two locations. Here, we’ll look at their Kyoto branch.

Ukishima Garden, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto. Image Source: Ukishimia Garden.

Opened in April 2016, they offer a contemporary twist to the Shojin Ryori style in a traditional house located close to the Nishiki market. Using organic, local vegetables, millet, and prepared condiments like vinegar, miso, and soy sauce, their menu offers Shojin Ryori, Western, Oriental, and fusion dishes. Vegan ramen lunches are available on weekends.

People have said good things about their four-course set meal, which includes an appetizer, three tapas, soup, a main course, and dessert.

Their menu is creative with interesting main dish options including ramen in a creamy curry, vegan sushi, mock battered fish on rice, and mock eel with sticky soy sauce. Their soup and ramen broth are kelp based. They even offer gyoza (Chinese fried dumplings). The open kitchen lets you watch the staff prepare your meal.

Interior of Ukishima Garden, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto. Image Source: Ukishimia Garden.

They also have various desserts (cake, mousse with fresh fruit, and more). Be sure to sample their homemade ginger ale too.

Reviews state that it is a bit expensive, but the delicious, gourmet food, impeccable presentation, and excellent service make it worthwhile. Most of the staff speak some English, and an English menu is available. Credit cards accepted.

Several items in one of their courses, Ukishima Garden, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto. Image Source: Ukishima Garden.

Learn More: HappyCow | Google Maps | Official Website


9. Shojin Cafe Foi (Shintouri, Wakayama)

This is a modern take on the Shojin Ryori theme, mixing Japanese, Taiwanese, and Western elements.

Shojin Cafe Foi, Shintouri, Wakayama City, Wakayama Prefecture. Image Source: Shojin Cafe Foi via Facebook.

Shojin Cafe Foi (精進cafe ふぉい) is located in the Shintouri district of Wakayama City, Wakayama Prefecture. It is located about halfway between the JR station and Wakayama Castle, about a ten-minute walk from either. It is also a short walk from the nearest bus stop (Mikimachi-shintori). They also have parking spaces.

The front of the building is quite stylish the same is true of the spacious interior. The central decoration is a humble gourd — an interesting choice that has been done well.

The menu has both Japanese, Taiwanese, and Western offerings. All of the main dishes are vegan; however, they may use dairy in some items such as desserts, bread, and chai. They are familiar with vegan requirements and will be happy to clarify if you ask. The staff don’t speak much English but are helpful. Their menu is only in Japanese but has pictures.

Most visitors tend to go for the daily lunch set which is artfully presented with the main dish accompanied by salad, rice, and soup. The vegan mains are mock meat dishes such as “mince” or ham” cutlets, seitan (wheat gluten) burger, seitan fried “chicken,” baked “fish,” deep fried “shrimp,” and hot pot dishes.

Shojin Cafe Foi, Shintouri, Wakayama City, Wakayama Prefecture. Image Source: Shojin Cafe Foi via Facebook

The sets also include a drink. Options include chai tea and caffeine-free dandelion coffee.

They have a little shop too where you can buy items such as vegan curry roux, soy meat, and vegan mayo.

Reservations are not required but are advised in case they get busy. It’s also a good chance for you to specify any needs you have such as being a strict vegan. Note that they close at 6:30 pm on some nights, so confirm before going.

Shojin Ryori dish, Shojin Cafe Foi, Shintouri, Wakayama City, Wakayama Prefecture. Image Source: Shojin Cafe Foi via Facebook.

Learn More: HappyCow | Google Maps | Official Website (in Japanese only)


10. Ukishima Garden (Naha, Okinawa)

Above, I gave you a brief introduction to Ukishima Garden’s (浮島ガーデン) Kyoto location. Now, we’ll take a look at their place in Okinawa’s capital, Naha. This won’t look like traditional Shojin Ryori at first glance. However I decided to include it because, looking closer, you will see that it contains its essence and demonstrates how the art form is permeating mainstream dining.

Ukishima Garden, Naha City, Okinawa Prefecture. Image Source: Ari (Bon Voyage Vegan).

Naha doesn’t have a lot of vegan/vegetarian restaurants, especially ones that open at night, so this one is quite popular. This isn’t a large venue, so making a reservation is advised.

Some say that it’s a bit hard to find by car, but you should be fine if you use Google Maps and take your time. If you park in the attached garage, you can get your receipt validated by the restaurant.

Once inside, you will be greeted by fresh flowers, plants, and jazz music. You’ll have the choice of inside or outdoor seating. If indoors, you will be able to watch the staff working in the open kitchen.

The menu of this branch is different from the one in Kyoto. While they have the same inventive fusion approach, here they offer vegan versions of local cuisine made with fresh ingredients. This includes Shojin Ryori dishes. Several menu items feature the infamous Okinawan bitter melon, goya. While known as a superfood, it is an acquired taste.

If you were to go for the Nirai Course Dinner Set, the most expensive on the menu, it might look something like this:

  1. A platter of assorted fresh vegetables with sauce.
  2. Bread with olive oil.
  3. Okinawa mozuku (a type of seaweed) salad, which includes okra.
  4. Okinawan Okura Sabji; a cold mixed vegetable curry.
  5. Soup of the day.
  6. Mushroom spaghetti with tomato cream sauce, enoki mushroom, and white clamshell mushrooms.
  7. Veggie taco rice made with mock minced meat, lettuce, and rice.
A section of the interior of Ukishima Garden, Naha City, Okinawa Prefecture. Image Source: Ukishima Garden.

There are various drinks available including organic fruit juices, beer, and wine. Their range of desserts includes a red pitaya, chocolate cake and a vegan ice-cream made with frozen banana. They also have sake ice cream and the coconut pudding pie.

The staff have a reputation for excellent service and speak English. There is also an English menu. Most reviewers conclude that while it is a bit pricey, it is overall worthwhile.

A sample course meal, Ukishima Garden, Naha City, Okinawa Prefecture. Image Source: Ukishima Garden via Instagram.

Learn More: HappyCow | Google Maps | Official Website


I sincerely hope you found this starter’s guide to Shojin Ryori useful. There are, of course, many fantastic restaurants that I couldn’t feature due to space constraints. If you have any that you enjoyed visiting, feel free to share by posting a response below (adding some pics would be great!).